Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Rediscovering Lyndon B. Johnson's History and Heritage

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Rediscovering Lyndon B. Johnson's History and Heritage

Article excerpt

JOHNSON CITY, Texas - The park ranger at Lyndon B. Johnson's boyhood home is herding our little group out of LBJ's bedroom and on toward the "sleeping porch," but my son is lagging behind, studying the period furnishings with more interest than you'd expect they'd inspire in an 11-year-old.

"So, this is the window?" he asks, referencing a story the ranger had just told - that young LBJ would sneak out of bed, climb out the window and crawl under the house on evenings that his legislator father had friends visiting in the parlor, so that he could eavesdrop on their political wheeling and dealing. I nod, he grins, and he hustles to catch up with our tour.

Only later did he explain what had struck him: He had never thought about any president ever being a kid, much less a kid who would break the rules. In that modest house, lacking touch screens or animatronic exhibits, history had come to life.

Which was what I'd vaguely hoped for when planning this trip in late November. My son's sixth-grade class had just spent a week immersed in the 50th anniversary of the JFK assassination but had spent little time on the man who succeeded him - despite the fact that LBJ was one of only two U.S. presidents born in Texas. (Bonus points if you knew the other was Dwight Eisenhower, who, though associated most closely with Kansas, was actually born in Denison.)

And LBJ wasn't just born in Texas - the lifelong Democrat grew up here, campaigned here, even spent much of his presidency governing here, from the ranch house in Stonewall dubbed the Texas White House. Today, the most important sites in his life, plus his presidential library and museum, are well-preserved and open to visitors, all within a roughly 60-mile swath of Central Texas, ready to be discovered by a new generation.

"I think that, now that the (JFK 50th anniversary) observances have concluded, the eyes of historians will turn back to LBJ, and we're starting to see an increase in interest in him," says Russ Whitlock, superintendent at the Lyndon B. Johnson National Historical Park in Johnson City. The park is commemorating his presidency with a series of special exhibits over the next seven years. "When people come here, see the boyhood home, go through the exhibits, they often experience kind of this 'a-ha' moment - 'I had no idea he did so much.'"

Lyndon Baines Johnson was born in 1908 in a farmhouse outside Stonewall, Texas. He died Jan. 22, 1973, at just 64 years of age, in his sprawling house just down the road from that cabin. In between, even when he served in Washington for more than 30 years, first in Congress and then the White House, Texas was always home.

The Johnsons deeded much of the ranch to the National Park Service in 1972, shortly before his death, with the vision of keeping it a working ranch that would be open to the public. Today, the national park is split in two. The ranch in Stonewall, connected to the state LBJ park, is one half, and the boyhood home and visitor center, in Johnson City proper, is the other.

We start our tour in Johnson City, where the park ranger convenes a group on the porch of the house where LBJ moved with his parents at age 5. Though the politician liked to play up his humble roots, we see immediately that by standards of the day, the Johnsons were fairly well-off. The tidy frame house, a modified dogtrot style, sits on a good-size city block in the middle of town. Our guide explains that Johnson's parents paid $3,000 for the property in 1913, the equivalent of about $300,000 today.

It's decorated to look like it did during Johnson's childhood, with some original furnishings and some belonging to Johnson family members, so we can begin to envision the small-town Texas upbringing that shaped Johnson's politics.

On the back porch, where Johnson slept alongside his siblings on hot summer nights, his dad, Sam, sometimes cut hair to bring in extra money when times were tight, our ranger explains. …

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